Mike Nichols, one of the most celebrated and prolific directors in the history of American film and stage, whose work included the movies “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, died on Wednesday night. He was 83.
His death was announced Thursday morning by James Goldston, the president of ABC News, who described him as a “true visionary.” Nichols was married to the ABC anchor Diane Sawyer.
Nichols was one of a small handful of people to win an Emmy, a Tony, a Grammy and an Oscar. His body of work included some of the defining American films of the second half of the 20th century, among them “Working Girl,” “Silkwood” and “The Birdcage.” He won an Oscar in 1968 for the seminal comedy “The Graduate.”
Across an extraordinary five-decade career, he won both popular success and critical acclaim as he moved easily between farces, political satires, romantic dramas and literary adaptations. He was known as an actor’s director who gave his performers the freedom to be loose and theatrical.
“There’s nothing better than discovering, to your own astonishment, what you’re meant to do,” he once said. “It’s like falling in love.”
He was a natural-born filmmaker. Nichols had never stepped behind the camera when Warner Brothers asked him to direct the “Virginia Woolf” adaptation in 1966. But the finished product was technically self-assured and thematically mature — and Nichols quickly followed it with the cultural touchstone “The Graduate.”
The actors who collaborated with him most frequently were practically Hollywood royalty, including Jack Nicholson, Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, who thought highly of Nichols that she once described him as “my master and commander. You know, my king.”
Mia Farrow remembered him on Twitter as “funniest, most generous, wisest, kindest of all.”
For the stage, Nichols won more Tony Awards for direction of a play — six — than anyone else. Those included Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” in 1964 and “The Odd Couple” in 1965, and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” two years ago.
“I think a director can make a play happen before your eyes so that you are part of it and it is part of you,” he once said. “If you can get it right, there's no mystery. It’s not about mystery. It’s not even mysterious. It’s about our lives.”
Nichols won nine Tony Awards in all, including two for producing and one for directing a musical, “Monty Python’s Spamalot” in 2005. The marquees of Broadway theaters in New York will be dimmed Friday at 7:45 p.m. in Nichols' memory.
“He is a giver,” the legendary playwright Tom Stoppard said in the ABC announcement. “He’s good at comfort and joy. He’s good at improving the shining hour and brightening the dark one, and, of course, he’s superlative fun. ... To me he is the best of America.”
Nichols’ work for television included “Angels in America,” the award-winning HBO miniseries about the AIDS crisis adapted from the eponymous stage play by Tony Kushner.
Before his death, he had been at work on an HBO adaptation of “Master Class,” the Terrence McNally play about the opera legend Maria Callas, which is to star Streep.
Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky on Nov. 6, 1931, in Berlin. His family fled Nazi Germany for the United States when he was 7. He told The Associated Press in 1996 that at the time he knew how to say two things in English: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”
Besides Sawyer, to whom he was married 26 years, Nichols is survived by three children and four grandchildren. The ABC announcement said that the family planned a small, private service this week and a memorial to be announced later.